© ATTA / Ciara Turner-Ewert - AdventureELEVATE 2023

Progress Over Perfection: Six Trends and Takeaways from AdventureELEVATE

21 June 2023

Over three days in May, the adventure travel community came together in Portland, Maine to explore the region, reconnect with each other, and exchange ideas. From the speakers and sessions to the overheard conversations, here are six key trends and takeaways from AdventureELEVATE 2023.

Sustainability has moved from a trend to an undercurrent throughout adventure travel.

While the term has no singular definition or universal standard, sustainability has moved from an unpopular conversation that only a few people were having to a mainstream concept. The adventure travel community may be the renegades of the larger tourism industry, but we’ve certainly borne witness to this shift.

At the Trendspotting Lab session, a packed room overflowed out the door as delegates listened to panelists discuss the trends that have emerged prominently over the last few years. Perhaps first as a whisper as the pandemic came to an end, Gen Z is now out in full force, leading the demand for active, sustainable experiences – from safaris to food and cultural tourism, according to Christian Wolters of TourRadar. 

Laura Redman, Digital Content Director for AFAR, agreed with Wolters, and added that current demand is high for outdoor-focused experiences like glamping and visiting national parks, and travelers are treading lightly – staying longer and going off the beaten path in a destination.

“Sustainable experiences are front and center, and the days of greenwashing are running out really fast,” Redman said. “Sustainability is becoming an undercurrent to everything else.” 

Operating within a circular economy offers a coordinated path toward economic and social sustainability.

A circular economy is not the easiest concept to grasp, but essentially it aims to limit or end the consumption of finite resources. Beyond recycling, the focus is to reduce, repair, and reuse goods.

Delegates witnessed one high-level example at the closing party hosted by Toad&Co. Known for their commitment to developing sustainable clothing, the company showcased their new facility in Portland, Maine dedicated to ToadAgain – their clothing resale program. The brick and mortar space now serves as a mixed retail store as well as a base for a streamlined resale operation, which in turn keeps more clothing out of landfills. 

The concept of a circular economy operates at the grassroots and community level as well, and delegates heard creative and collaborative examples in the session on Moving Circular in the Outdoor Recreation Economy.

Amanda Hatley, Founder and Director of SheSummits – an adventure and outdoor-focused summer camp and tour operator – found that the high cost of acquiring, maintaining, and repairing gear was a large contributor to their cost of operating. That affected pricing, which created a barrier for getting people outdoors; kids from lower socioeconomic backgrounds could not afford to join. SheSummits partnered with Maine GearShare, a non-profit that works with schools, camps, and the local community to rent gear and make trips more financially accessible. 

“As someone who happens to live in Maine, I see a lot of progress happening towards bringing circularity to our industry, particularly with our ‘sisters’ in the outdoor recreation and gear and apparel world,” said Alice Gifford, ATTA’s Events Content Manager & Team Experience Guide. “From the ToadAgain facility, to the local producers in the Maker’s Market, to the variety of suppliers working to shift their customers’ expectations and behaviors to a more regenerative form of travel… seeing it all happen here in Maine gives me hope for our future.” 

© ATTA / Ciara Turner-Ewert - AdventureELEVATE 2023

Effective storytelling is ancient art with unchanged rules at its roots – even when applied to evolving technology. 

While it may be impossible to keep up with the latest best practices for beating Instagram’s algorithm or mastering SEO content, there are certain truths to telling a good story that, comfortingly, remain unchanged.

As Judith Fein and Paul Ross shared in their interactive session on Exercises in Creative Branding and Storytelling, kids are natural storytellers but as adults we tend to lose the tendency for creativity and instead begin to “talk the talk” of industry and adulthood – words like “amazing” become overused, they offered as one example. Whether operating in a visual or verbal space, telling a good story requires finding the distinct and specific rather than generic.

And telling that story is more important than ever. As a panelist on Moving Circular in the Outdoor Recreation Economy, Gordon Seabury, the Founder and CEO of Toad&Co,  shared that from a company’s social impact to insight about the level of activity on a trip, “It is our responsibility to educate the traveler and consumer,” Seabury said. “We take for granted how much we know because we are insiders.” 

Reaching an audience with your story does, however, require paying attention to the modern tools. Martinique Lewis, President of the Black Travel Alliance, told the Trendspotting audience that “TikTok has become the new Google” because it offers a more visual storytelling experience. “Instagram is ‘watch me build this house’ and TikTok is ‘here are the steps to build it,’” Lewis said. “If it’s not in your marketing plan, it should be. If you can tell the story, that’s what someone is going to connect with.” 

But don’t fool yourself into thinking the tools have more power than your own creativity. Jason Reckers, ATTA COO and moderator for the Trendspotting session, asked ChatGPT the same questions he asked panelists. The AI response was generic and based on data mined from 2019. As ATTA CEO Shannon Stowell observed, “It showed how minimal the power of prediction was compared to the humans on stage.”

Brand transparency builds trust among your clients, peers, and larger network.

A common theme echoed throughout AdventureELEVATE was admitting that no one has all the answers. From finding a balance between greenwashing versus gatekeeping when it comes to sustainability, to publicizing who they work with, businesses have realized that honesty has a greater impact on their brand’s reputation than striving for an appearance of perfection. 

Brand transparency begins with acknowledging the people and partners key to your success – even those historically kept behind the scenes. In the Adventure Accelerator: Leadership & Team Development, Allison Fleece of WHOA Travel explained that instead of white labeling – a common practice among buyers who require guides and suppliers to operate under their brand – at WHOA Travel they prefer to be open about who they work with on the ground. Instead of putting everything behind the WHOA label, there is instead a sense of pride in who they choose to work with. “Our business isn’t hurting because of this transparency,” said Fleece.

That transparency extends to setting realistic expectations for travelers and potential staff. In Moving Circular in the Outdoor Recreation Economy, Amanda Hatley of SheSummits shared that as a company they are using TikTok as a platform to showcase what the experience of joining a trip or working at camp will really be like. “We need to reach younger generations to meet them where they are,” Hatley said.

Jenny Kordick, the Executive Director of Maine Outdoor Brands, echoed Hatley, adding that transparency is also key when it comes to claims of sustainability. Kordick shared that PFAs had been found in Maine’s water supply, and as an industry they are trying to phase them out from the manufacturing side. Still, making big changes to become more sustainable is challenging for large and small brands, Kordick said. “All of us need to be honest about where we are and where we need to get to in order to be compliant.”

Embellishing sustainability efforts has become a hallmark of marketing over the last decade, so embracing honesty about current progress and identifying shortcomings is a cutting-edge concept. 

© ATTA / Emily Trostel - AdventureELEVATE 2023

Demand for accessible, sustainable, and inclusive adventure travel still outpaces offerings.

As adventure travel continues to gain traction within the larger tourism sector, there are signs that consumer demand is still growing and changing faster than the industry is. That opens opportunities to accommodate more travelers in a sustainable and positively impactful way.

Part of that entails meeting people where they are. In the Adventure Accelerator: Serving Age 50+ Travelers, delegates discussed how to design and develop adventures for travelers over 50. According to Dianne Wallace, CEO of Monumental Travel & Events, it all starts with getting to know your clients – through intake forms, reports from past trips, and phone calls. Equity is less about age than it is about ability, so going beyond the number to truly address any medical concerns, injuries, or other limitations allow businesses to better accommodate travelers and match them to the appropriate trip level – ensuring an accessible and enjoyable experience. 

Striving for accessibility can sometimes be at odds with sustainability. During the Trendspotting session, Martinique Lewis highlighted the importance of balancing the higher cost of operating sustainable experiences with affordability to remain accessible to different socioeconomic groups. “It’s about helping people find value,” she said. “What can be booked a la carte?”

In his closing keynote, Steadfast into the Future, Thornton May reminded the room that even more adaptation will be needed in the years to come as the industry progresses. “Your biggest challenge moving forward will not be creating demand but understanding, shaping, and satisfying demand,” he said. 

Collaboration and an abundance mindset are necessary for the adventure travel industry to thrive.

Business generates natural competition, but the future of adventure travel lies in the ability of competitors to work together. An abundance mindset, rather than a sense of scarcity, is what will drive the industry forward.

Jamie Sweeting, President of the non-profit Planeterra, reminded those in the session on Fulfilling the Pledge of Sustainability, “There are five components to the Glasgow Declaration around climate change and tourism, and the ones that always get forgotten are the two at the end, which are partnership with collaboration and finance.”

While he acknowledged no one in that room would be able to figure out a way to attain sustainable aviation, the biggest challenges in the industry might be faced through crowdsourcing solutions.

“None of us are going to be able to effectively do that alone, so why not come together – with ATTA, the Untours Foundation, the big companies that are here, with smaller companies and destinations all together – maybe we can actually achieve something profound,” Sweeting said.

The idea of industry-wide partnership is not so far-fetched. AdventureELEVATE itself is a microcosm of that type of collaboration – the ATTA, the State Office of Tourism, Maine Office of Outdoor Recreation, Visit Portland, and Maine Outdoor Brands all worked together over the past year to contribute ideas and resources toward the event. Maine is also a member of the Confluence of States, a collective of 16 states with agreed upon principles to grow the outdoor recreation economy while protecting wild places.

Similarly, committing to a circular economy depends on relationships and trust. At the local level, Maine Outdoor Brands – the state trade association for the outdoor industry – was founded on the idea that there is strength in numbers and collaboration elevates everyone. “We can’t take the recreational places we have for granted,” said Jenny Kordick. “We need to think about the future together”

According to Kordick, just having the movement defined in the United States is a unique step. There are major parallels between outdoor recreation and adventure travel, and finally collaborating across industries reflects responsibility and leadership.

In his closing keynote, Thornton May said that a defining reality of the modern age is that positive change is possible, but for the adventure travel community, he believes, it is probable. 

“You are in the right room,” he reminded the audience. “And the most important thing you can do is create sacred, shared spaces.”

© ATTA / Ciara Turner-Ewert - AdventureELEVATE 2023